Breaking News
More () »

When the school cafeteria is the only option for a healthy meal

The American Heart Association says food insecurity is the reason life expectancy rates rival third world countries in one southern Dallas ZIP code.

DALLAS — They might sound a little morbid, but these numbers prove an important point about North Texas.

On average, Collin County residents live 82 years.

Just 25 miles to the south, in the 75216 ZIP code, people live an average of 70 years.

The American Heart Association says food insecurity is a driving force behind that startling discrepancy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as "a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life."

“Growing up, there were no healthy options,” said Unesha Wells, who was born in 75216 and raised there by her grandparents. "Your healthiest option was probably going to be your school cafeteria."

“Not even a Subway. Not even a Subway in this neighborhood," she said.

Well's grandmother died several years ago. But Raymond Cunningham, her 79-year-old grandfather, still lives in the same home she grew up in on South Denley Drive.

“You can see they still have my high school pictures up,” she said as she pointed to two faded photographs hanging on the wall. 

She's wearing a formal dress in one framed picture and in the other a red graduation gown.

Wells was the first in her family to graduate high school. Her college graduation was another milestone for her family. 

Credit: WFAA
Unesha Wells and her grandfather on the front porch of her childhood home.

Sitting on her grandfather’s front porch, "my spot" as she calls it, she now has an adult’s perspective of the countless obstacles she and her family and friends faced trying to live a healthy life in their neighborhood.

“Everybody wants a Whole Foods or an Eatzi’s or something like that," she said. "In this neighborhood, you’re not going to find that."

Wells always relied on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit bus to get to and from school. To get to the store, she either rode a bus or walked and carried her groceries home.

The same thing is still happening in 75216.  And when it comes to restaurants, there are choices, but few are healthy.

“It is definitely a food desert," she said. "You’re going to get fried foods, barbecue. Anything that would be considered fresh, it’s not going to be in 75216 or anywhere near here.”

“Even access to parks and nice walking trails is hard,” she said.

Well’s grandfather had a fresh garden in their backyard, so eating vegetables was a given when she was growing up. 

“I think I made worse choices as an adult than I did as a kid,” she said with a laugh. “We had squash and okra, but I know it was not the same for all the other houses on this street.”

“Were we the only house on this street with a garden?” she asked her grandfather. 

He shook his head yes. 

Credit: WFAA
Food desert

A former teacher and current community volunteer in 75216, Wells is frustrated that a ZIP code determines wealth and health.

“There definitely is and has been a class system between the haves and have nots,” she said. “But to be honest, my grandparents instilled so much value in me that I was about 15 or 16 years old when I realized I was a have not because the things we valued were not material.”

She said she learned to work hard, respect herself and others, and value people and relationships.

“I want to get back to that,” she said.

Wells works with For Oak Cliff, a nonprofit organization focused on education, advocacy and community building in 75216.

For Oak Cliff is one of the agencies the American Heart Association is partnering with to increase food options and help people understand how to make healthier choices inside the ZIP code. 

Together, with several other community organizations, they are hosting mobile markets, providing healthy dinners for kids after school and trying to lure a new grocery store to the area.

“We’re gonna do the work in 75216,” Wells said. “We’re gonna let our work speak for itself." 

LINK: For Oak Cliff

RELATED: A Waco oasis, and how a south Dallas food desert hopes its turn is next

RELATED: Council approves $5.7 million in incentives to bring Kroger online grocery warehouse to Dallas

Before You Leave, Check This Out